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EU’s Web Copyright Directive Could Spell Trouble

A vote in January on contentious new EU copyright laws could negatively impact tech platforms and all online publishers, create risky legal grey areas for many businesses, stifle freedom of expression, and lead to more surveillance and control.

What Copyright Law?

There will be a final vote in January 2019 on an EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. According to EU leaders, the intention in creating the new Directive is to modernise copyright laws across all EU member states, and to take account of how people now share and distribute content in the digital age.

The change in the law essentially puts a greater obligation for policing copyright infringement on those companies distributing content / making works available online e.g. tech giants, rather than on individuals for downloading it.

Key Articles

The likely introduction of the new Directive has provoked arguments, many of which relate to 2 particular articles in the Directive. These articles are Article 11, which states that new websites should be able to charge web firms for sharing links to their content, and Article 13, which puts the onus on news websites to work with copyright holders in order to prevent users from uploading content that they don’t own the rights to.

In the case of Article 11, for example, some commentators have asked whether this will mean that there will be difficulties placing a value on articles / article extracts, whether headlines and snippets will require licensing, whether payment will be required for hyper-linking (a ‘link tax’), and whether platforms publishing news e.g. Google, will have to pay compensation for providing headlines and extracts. These kinds of complications and costs could, therefore, discourage the distribution and sharing of news content, and could even discourage the sharing of things like holiday photos on the internet.

For Article 13, the requirement for the installation of ‘content filters’ to help web firms stop users sharing copyrighted content, which appears to be targeted at platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, has led critics to say that how people use the web doesn’t appear to have been taken into account by lawmakers. Article 13 could, therefore, mean that too much legitimate content is removed, thereby negatively affecting user experience, and sharing news articles online and finding good quality journalism online could become more difficult for web users.

Other Concerns

Several other concerns have been raised about the contents of the new EU copyright Directive, including:

  • This being a potential step towards the transformation of the internet from an open sharing platform to a tool for the automated surveillance and control of users.
  • Content filters creating a kind of censorship, and doubts over whether automatic content filters will be able to detect things like fair comment, satire, criticism and parody.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Although the stated intention for the change in the law appears to be a good one, for the tech giants this law change represents greater responsibility and control being placed upon them. The potential for increased costs and legal grey areas could create more risks for any company that simply wants to freely report or share news content. The news directive has, therefore, been widely criticised and greeted with suspicion e.g. back in June, 70 of the biggest names of the internet, including, Tim Berners-Lee, and the Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, signed an open letter citing worries about the news directive being simply used as a way for governments to exert more control and extend surveillance. The use of automatic content filters and the threat of charges for using even headlines, snippets and even hyperlinks certainly look as though they could limit free speech, and discourage and deter the sharing of information and news in a way that could work against the interests of many businesses and organisations.

It remains to be seen how January’s vote goes and whether Brexit will mean that the UK will actually be subject to the directive.